From the archives: The power of offence

(This is an old piece, written and published in August 2007. Posting it chiefly for my personal records.)

When an author, artist or a film-maker is attacked, the assumption most people make is that the assailants hate the person in question. This is not true.

Most assailants, whether they are bigots, religious fundamentalists, old-world conservatives or merely unemployed, have good reason to love the objects of their wrath. Without an M F Husain to offend their sensibilities, entire cadres of a certain political party would be out of business. Without a Taslima Nasreen, obscure Muslim clerics and little-known political organizations would never get their 15 minutes of fame.

The assault on Taslima Nasreen happened at a book launch in Hyderabad on 8 August, when three MLAs from the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) disrupted the event by shouting threats and attempting to physically attack the author. This has been followed by a general baying for Nasreen’s blood by Muslim clerics in Calcutta, the revival of a fatwa against her, and the offer of sums ranging from Rs 50,000 (for anyone who can blacken Nasreen’s face) to Rs 1,00,000 and “unlimited”, but unspecified, rewards for anyone who kills her.

Nasreen, who has been unsuccessfully seeking asylum in India ever since her writings provoked the wrath of religious fundamentalists in Bangladesh, has remained calm. Her tourist visa has just been reissued, allowing her to stay in this country for another six months, and she has announced that she is contemplating a sequel to Lajja, the book that turned her into a permanent exile.

Think of similar incidents of this nature–an assault on a filmmaker (the attack on Deepa Mehta, the recent disruption of a screening of Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace) or the banning of a book (Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses) and look at the manner in which we react in India.

The first reaction is a furious debate over the work itself. After sixty years of Independence, we are not yet comfortable, in our democracy, with the idea that freedom of speech is an absolute freedom, and that artistic freedom is essential. So our reactions, even “liberal” reactions, are nervous, often tentative. There’s nothing wrong with Deepa Mehta’s film on Hindu widows, but what if it provokes violence, how can we be responsible for that? Of course Salman Rushdie has the right to think freely as a novelist, but his work has after all offended religious sentiments, shouldn’t he have been more responsible? Taslima Nasreen is free to suggest that religions oppress women and that the holy book of the faith she was born into is obsolete, but shouldn’t she have expected strong reactions?

“Responsibility” is seen as an authorial function: few people see that those who may be offended have an equal responsibility, which is to set out their arguments in a way that at the very least, does not include physical violence.

All of this sends out a very strong message to writers and other creative artists: you are free to write whatever you want, provided you are willing to bear the consequences alone and unprotected by the might of the state.

The way we really feel about writers—our own and those who have come to a free, democratic country in search of shelter—can be seen in what we do not do. The people who make death threats are often powerful. They may be religious or political leaders who wield considerable force and influence. But they are also citizens of this country, and in theory at least, subject to the laws of this land. If you make a death threat in a public forum, you should be arrested. If you attack another citizen who has done you no physical harm, you should be arrested. If you threaten to hold an entire country to ransom by declaring that you will unleash violent mobs if a particular painting is not destroyed, if a particular book is not banned, if a particular author is not silenced, you and your mobs should be arrested as a danger to common citizens.

How often, in these sixty years of this independence that we pride ourselves on, have we seen the real culprits punished? How often, instead, have we effectively licensed and condoned the right of those whose “sentiments have been offended” to extract retribution?

The weakest argument, not from a moral but from a logical standpoint, is that of the religious fundamentalists—of any religion. If you believe as a matter of faith that a certain book is blasphemous, and therefore dangerous for the faithful to read, then you have a simple solution. Tell the faithful that they must not read it. If they are truly faithful, they will obey, and be saved from the perdition you fear for them. If they are not of the faith, or have lapsed in their faith, then to read a blasphemous book will only damn them a little bit further. That is really, as a mindful officer of the faith, none of your business—your only concern is to ensure the obedience of the faithful.

Leave the rest of us, writers and readers, alone.





2 responses to “From the archives: The power of offence”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Well said!Tuni

  2. Siddharth Avatar

    But this argument teeters dangerously close to a slippery slope. Absolute freedom of speech in India means freedom not just for books, but for the content of speeches/pamphlets etc. When presented with hard-line ideologies in a country where there is a systematic oppression of the poor, a country where many are barely educated and the impulse to violence, born out of frustration, is so great, where the susceptibility to ideology as an escape from the emptiness of a life denied dignity is everywhere around us, rhetoric – especially the ones that are structured as “Do XYZ to identify as one of ‘us’” – can be a powerful, violent thing. I do not know if doing away with the reasonable restrictions clause is such a good thing in a country of a million mutinies. Perhaps leniency to the artists on a case-by-case basis is the answer. But then again, where does art end and propaganda start? Is there an objective way of evaluating each?

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